Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Ugly Truth About "District 9": Racism and Anthropology

I was listening to this podcast from PRI this week and it talks about the location in South Africa that was chosen for the movie District Nine. The great squalor that is depicted in the movie, is real. It's not scenery. Here we are in a post-Apartheid world and yet South Africa has failed to engage all its citizens in its democratic process.

This introduction is the beginning of PRI's Geo Quiz. So it is set out as a question and answer.
Refugees in Africa also figure in today’s Geo Quiz – but these refugees are from another planet.

“District 9″ is where these aliens are locked up, apartheid-style, in the current hit movie of the same name. They’d arrived nearby: in Johannesburg.

That’s your your first clue to to the township we’re looking for in today’s Geo Quiz. “District 9″ opens in Johannesburg this week.

But the movie was actually filmed in a township south-west of the city. Yes, those slums are all too real. And the parallells don’t end there.

South Africa’s apartheid government created the REAL township for blacks to live in, separate from the white population. It became a center of dissent against the racist regime. It’s still there…and it still houses some of South Africa’s poorest people.

We’re looking for the name of this township.
And the answer is;
We wanted to know where the new sci-fi movie, “District Nine,” was shot. It’s a township south-west of Johannesburg that gained notoriety during the apartheid era.

The answer is Soweto. Specifically, “District Nine” was filmed in a district of Soweto called Chiawalo. The movie contains scenes of disturbing poverty. And that poverty is all too real, 15 years after South Africa’s first democratic elections.

Geoffrey York is Africa bureau chief of the Canadian paper, The Globe and Mail. He went to Chiawalo to see what residents make of the movie.
Here is the interview:

This is the story he printed in the Globe And Mail.

Race is a very important issue in Anthropology. While the profession tries to be neutral on the subject, Anthropologists are trained to understand race and racism and how these practices manifest themselves.

Ethnicity and Race in Anthropology - Franz Boas, Ethnicity, And Contemporary Physical Anthropology: Continuing Tensions, Cultural Fundamentalism And Instrumental Ethnicities

Ethnicity, as defined in the public domain, is "the cultural characteristics that connect a particular group or groups of people to each other" (Wikipedia). Twenty-first-century anthropologists, however, are likely to complicate simple notions of ethnicity, or they might refuse to accept a general definition of the concept without first demanding accounts of the particular formation of an ethnic identity in a unique place and time. Citizens of the United States, for example, are enculturated to associate ethnicity with a mapping of cultural or national origin to language, religious practices, styles of adornment, types of non (or un-) American foods, and oftentimes, physical looks. Anthropologists, however, are much more interested in ethnicity as a historically and politically situated set of identity practices, rather than as a state of natural or expected correspondence between physicality, behaviors, and attitudes. Such a nuanced view of ethnicity has not always been the norm in anthropology or in social science. A central story of ethnicity in anthropology is its labored disentanglement from now discredited biological and evolutionary notions of "race," ideas that continue to contribute to the general public's conceptualization of the "ethnic" as a physically distinct type of person.

In the mid-nineteenth century the terms ethnic and racial first came into common use, employed by pre-and post-Darwinian scientists, and later anthropologists, to construct human racial and cultural taxonomies. As the social corollary of race, "ethnic" (ethnicity as a unique term does not emerge in the United States until the 1950s) initially served to reinscribe physical notions of racial, and in some cases national, identity onto groups of people often naively assumed to have a shared cultural, historical, or even evolutionary past.

Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, race, was the dominant concept for the scientific, social, and political classification of human groups in the Western world. Though scientific and popular ideas of what makes a race, who embodies race, and what being of a certain race means have changed drastically through time, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment ushered in a very specific scientific classification of human beings, particularly the ordering of non-European and colonized peoples. Before the scientific community accepted the theory of evolution by natural selection in the nineteenth century, human races were thought to be the product of divine creation. Following the Adam and Eve story closely, monogenists believed in a single creation from which all people and consequently all races arose. Polygenists, though, believed that there was a separate creation for each major race. Furthermore, proponents of both of these pre-evolutionary models used continental labels for creating physical races as bounded groups. Anthropologists assumed that all Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Native Americans were naturally distinct from each other—even on the level of the species—through differentiation over time (monogeny) or through natural, created difference (polygeny). Cultural-historical notions of identity as essentially unchanging and the delineation of fixed anatomical categories also served to determine a certain people's "racial type."

The adoption of an evolutionary framework for understanding human difference, however, did little to transform early anthropologists' fixed ideas of race and racial connections to ethnic identity. Instead, scientists quantified human variation through morphology, mostly using erroneous comparisons of skull size and shape. These practices became the basis for the development of methodology in physical (or biological) anthropology in the United States and Europe. Based on misinterpreted and even falsified anthropometric data, physical anthropologists wrongly assigned labels of either "less evolved" or "degenerated" to nonwhite peoples. Evolutionary ideas initially applied to global racial taxonomies were also used to classify people on other physical, behavioral, or cultural scales. Anthropologists also considered white women, European and European-American people of lower socioeconomic classes, convicted criminals, disabled people, and people who practiced homosexual or other seemingly scandalous sexual practices (such as adulterers and prostitutes) lower on natural scales of evolution and development. Similarly, nonwhite people were wrongly thought to be more naturally susceptible to various behavioral and cultural vices, damaging stereotypes that persist among racists and cultural isolationists in the United States in the early twenty-first century.

Likewise, until ethnicity's emergence in the 1960s and 1970s as a term describing more fluid social processes of identity formation, social scientists used ethnic to describe a natural or fixed category of person. In the United States, especially during the intense debate over Eastern European and Mediterranean immigration in the early portion of the twentieth century, an "ethnic" was a person of a marked, lower, category, opposed to a bourgeois white identity. Ethnics, in this context, became lower-class whites, Jews, and nonwhite, colonized, or indigenous peoples.

Ideas of ethnicity have, therefore, consistently been relational; that is, one's ethnic identity, either physical or cultural, is defined through both assumed similarities within a group and assumed differences between groups. Franz Boas's 1912 study of cranial plasticity in American immigrants, however, was the first and arguably most influential anthropometric contestation of the fixed physical nature of ethnicity and racial identity. Among some anthropologists, though, fear of the negative or racially degrading influence of a large ethnic presence in America was used to argue against Boas's conclusions, and for increasingly strict immigration policies and the establishment of eugenics programs across the nation.

Moreover, after the devastating results of such "Aryan" hysteria in Europe during World War II, greater anthropological use of the term ethnic group coincided with a general repudiation of biological determinism and racism within the social sciences as a whole, as well as with a particularly anthropological recognition of the emergence of anticolonial nationalism outside the First World. Specifically, anthropologists replaced tribe or tribalism with ethnic group, especially when describing African migrants to colonial urban centers. Still, all these early uses of the term ethnic in anthropology imply a bounded set of cultural traits, historical commonalities, or mental similarities between people of the same ethnic group, even if they later became delinked from physical or racial characteristics.


Ethnicity and Race in Anthropology - Franz Boas, Ethnicity, And Contemporary Physical Anthropology: Continuing Tensions, Cultural Fundamentalism And Instrumental Ethnicities
Read more:

York, Geoffery. 2009. "South Africa's District 'mine'. Globe & Mail. August 23, 2009. Available online:

Picture Credit;

Flkr images. September 19, 2008. Available online:

No comments: